Could Flexible Displays Be In Your Next Laptop?

Could Flexible Displays Be In Your Next Laptop?

I have been often referred to as a futurist as I predicted Desktop Publishing years before it became a reality and forecasted the major explosion of mobile and pocket computing in a report I did in 1985.

One key reason for my making these predictions has more to do with getting a peek into groundbreaking technology years before it ever goes public. An example of this was when I was shown work on a Canon laser printer engine three years before it was made into a commercial product. At that time, laser printers were closet-sized devices and could cost between $50-$100K each.

Upon seeing that Canon laser engine, which could easily fit into a desktop printer-sized format, I wrote in a report on printers that suggested, “one could imagine being able to someday use a laser printer for desktop publishing and change the economics of the publishing industry.”

I was also privy to some incredible research on mobile computing as early as 1983, somewhat in the format of Alan Kay’s Dynabook vision he put forth in 1968.

While I knew this technology was many years from becoming available, I stated in one of our first reports on the evolution of desktop computing that, “I could see PCs someday being highly mobile and perhaps even pocketable.” I got a lot of flack for this when I wrote this study since early desktop PCs were monstrosities. Like the original Compaq models, even the earliest portable computers were more like Singer sewing machines in design.

This is why I go to many technology-focused conferences over my 40-year career in tech and meet with companies primarily under NDA to show me what they are working on and ask about their potential roadmaps.

One tech-focused conference I attend is SID’s Display Conference each year. This conference consistently gives attendees a glimpse of technologies destined to impact all types of computing devices in the future.

At this SID show in 2018, BOE showed me the first truly foldable smartphone prototype. This prototype led me to share my thoughts about the potential for foldable smartphones in my PCMag column at that time. It took another two years to see the first commercial folding smartphones hit the market led by Samsung with others following suit today.

Three years ago, I was shown early models of a much larger folding LED screen that was being tested in a traditional laptop design. In fact, one OEM was able to modify a current model of their laptop to include a foldable screen in a proof-of-concept design as early as the fall of 2017.

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Then in 2019, Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad X1 Fold, which became the first foldable laptop with a 13.3 inch OLED screen in landscape mode. Technically this folding laptop is a marvel of technology and was designed to be used in landscape and portrait mode.

At the SID Display conference in San Jose, CA last week, I saw the next generation of folding OLED screens optimized for laptops. LG, Samsung and BOE showed their recent foldable screens that can be used in laptops and all were impressive.

This YouTube link shows LG’s 17-inch foldable design in action in laptop format that LG introduced at the Display Conference.

Samsung also showed a 17.3 inch model called the Flex Note.

And one of the largest screen manufacturers in China, BOE, also showed their latest folding screen in a laptop prototype at SID.

At the moment, foldable smartphones are still in their infancy, and it is not clear how big the market will be for these devices. I have tested the new Samsung Z Fold 3 and love the versatility of using it as a smartphone and a small tablet. This particular phone has real promise and sets the standard of what I believe people will expect in a folding phone. However, demand for this and all foldable phones is slow to take off. Forecasting demand for foldable smartphones is difficult at the moment.

The new larger foldable screens designed for laptops revealed at the 2022 SID Display Week Conference are still in prototype phases, although we could see at least one of them introduced at CES early in 2023. They, too, hold a lot of promise, although learning to type on a screen keyboard may be difficult for some. One other way to use these folding laptops could also be to include an external keyboard, stand the screen up in landscape mode, and use it as a portable 17.3-inch monitor.

We also do not know yet at what price points they will come to market in the future, but you can expect them to be in the premium sector of the laptop computing market.

Viewing these new folding OLED screens with their vibrant colors and amazing folding capabilities suggests that a folding laptop might be in the future for some. But I have doubts that it will become a dominant form factor for laptop computers in this decade, if ever.

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